As I sit here watching the beginning of the 2017 postseason, I long to see the San Diego Padres in the playoffs again.
I am reminded of when I was a young child during the celebrated playoff run of 1998. The city of San Diego was alive.
Jack Murphy Stadium was filled every night. They averaged north of 31,000 per game at the ballpark that season.
1998 was a fun year for the San Diego Padres and their fans. They were two years removed from a 1996 N.L. West title, when Ken Caminiti won the MVP. About half of that team was left for the 1998 run, and the Friars were feeling good leading up to the season.
Greg Vaughn had one of the best single seasons in Padres history, clubbing a team-record 50 home runs. The aforementioned Caminiti added 29 bombs. Of course, the greatest Padre ever, Tony Gwynn, had a solid season, as always. He once again hit over .300, posting a .321 average.
Kevin Brown led the Padre rotation. The MLB All-Star went 18-7 with a 2.38 ERA. His 257 strikeouts are still a Padres single-season record. Andy Ashby was not far behind at 17-9 and a 3.34 ERA. Trevor Hoffman was his usual, Hall of Fame (at least he better be) self. He set a franchise record with 53 saves that season.
The Padres finished 98-64, on top of the National League West for the second time in three seasons. They went into the playoffs with the lowest winning percentage among the division winners.
The Padres took on the 102-60 Houston Astros, who were then part of the N.L. Central. Thus, they opened on the road in Game 1 in the Astrodome. The Friars were able to beat Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, winning 2-1. The Astros got a game back before the series went to San Diego tied one a piece. The Padres then won both games at the “Q” to win the series three games to one.
Padres backup catcher and first baseman, Jim Leyritz, had a spectacular series, swatting three home runs and hitting .400. Brown started two games and just overwhelmed Houston with an 0.61 ERA in 14 2/3 innings. The Padres pulled away late in the series-clinching Game 4 and won 6-1.
League Championship Series
After making swift work of the Astros, it didn’t get any easier for San Diego. They faced a 106-win Atlanta Braves team that was in the middle of their dominant run through the 90’s. The Braves had a rotation that featured not one, not two, but three Hall of Famers in Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. 60% of that rotation is now in Cooperstown. And just for fun, Chipper Jones is on the ballot this coming year and shouldn’t have much trouble getting in either. The fact that the Padres were able to not only hit against this rotation, but win the series, was quite an accomplishment.
Game 1 was at Turner Field. The Padres won a heart-stopper in 10 innings. Hoffman came in the 8th inning with the lead and blew a save, a rare occurrence. Andruw Jones scored future Padre Ryan Klesko on a sac fly. Hoffman was able to get out of it, sending the game to extras where Ken Caminiti lifted the Padres to a 3-2 win with a solo shot.
That neutralized the Braves’ home-field advantage. The Padres did one better and took the second game in Atlanta to take a commanding 2-0 series lead going back to San Diego. That’s where Sterling Hitchcock came in. Hitchcock ended up being the NLCS MVP. He threw five innings of one-run ball and struck out six. Steve Finley had a clutch hit and the Padres won the game, on the verge of sweeping the mighty Braves.
The Braves had other ideas. They ended up winning the next two games in San Diego, making the series a bit tighter, now down just three games to two. The Friars called on Hitchcock for the critical Game 6 and he delivered once again. Hitchcock twirled five shutout innings while striking out eight.
The Padres clinched their second-ever National League pennant with a 5-0 shutout win over Atlanta on the road. Fittingly, Hoffman got the final three outs for the Friars, as they danced their way to the World Series and a date with the Bronx Bombers.
It was the first Fall Classic for San Diego since 1984. They had to deal with their third straight 100+ win team in the New York Yankees, who had won an astounding 114 games (the Padres are the only team to face three 100-win teams in one postseason). The Yankees were a buzz-saw of sorts.
However, in Game 1 in New York, the Padres proved that they belonged. In fact, for much of Game 1, the Padres were the better team. Down 2-0 in the 3rd inning, Vaughn launched a two-run homer to tie it. Then, in one of the greatest moments of Tony Gwynn‘s illustrious career, he blasts a go-ahead two-run shot in the fifth inning off of San Diegan and future Padre David Wells to give San Diego a 4-2 lead. The Friars were not done. Vaughn hit another big fly the very next batter to make it 5-2.
The score would remain 5-2 until the seventh when Chuck Knoblauch delivered a game-tying three-run shot. That changed the whole complexion of the game and really the series. Later in that inning, Tino Martinez delivered the crushing blow, sending a grand slam over the right field fence and Yankee Stadium into bedlam. The Yankees led 9-5 and would only trail once the rest of the World Series.
The Padres were swept in four games and the Yankees celebrated the first of what would be three straight championships on the Padres home field.
Not lost on Padres fans though, was the magic of that season. Tony Gwynn was entering the twilight of his career and made one last run. The city was abuzz and this team was just flat-out fun to watch, win or lose. Had the Padres not run into one of the most dominant dynasties in baseball history, who knows? Perhaps things would have gone differently.
Here is to another run similar to this (with a better ending) for the Friars in the next few seasons. For what it’s worth, the Padres had losing seasons the year before their 1996 and 1998 postseason runs.